UN warns drug use on the rise in Vietnam

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned that amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) is the most common drug used among Vietnamese in big cities, border areas and industrial zones, while its use continues to rise in rural areas.

A press release by the UN in Vietnam on Wednesday said that ATS remained the second most commonly used drug in Vietnam since 2010, despite the availability of some new psychoactive substances (NPS).

"We recognize the increasing number of drug seizures and cross-border trafficking operations in Vietnam, as well as the danger of increasing abuse of ATS and new psychoactive substances among the Vietnamese youth," said Pratibha Mehta, the UN Resident Coordinator in Vietnam.

"We need to help young people become more aware of the harmful consequences of these substances," Mehta said.

According to the UNODC's 2013 World Drug Report released the same day, the number of NPS, which are marketed as "legal highs" and "designer drugs," is increasing at an unusually rapid rate. UNODC member states have reported the number of NPS in their countries have increased from 166 at the end of 2009, to 251 by mid-2012.

"New psychoactive substances can be made by slightly modifying the molecular structure of controlled drugs, making a new drug with similar effects which can elude national and international bans," according to a Reuters report. NPS include ketamine and kratom which are common in Asia.

The use of NPS endangers public health as the drugs have yet to be formally outlawed, said the report.

It said the drugs are sold openly and represent a "lucrative" business, but can be "far more dangerous" than traditional drugs. Street names like "spice" and "meow-meow" lure people into believing that they present an opportunity for "low-risk fun," but their potentially adverse effects and addictive properties remain poorly understood.

"Concerted action to prevent the manufacture, trafficking and abuse of these substances are urgently needed," Yury Fedotov, UNODC's Executive Director, said. 

Drug busts frequently make headlines in Vietnam, which has some of the stiffest drug laws in the world and where those convicted of serious offences involving traditional drugs like heroin and methamphetamine commonly receive the death penalty.

Transporting drugs via air travel in particular is also common in Vietnam. In the most recent case, a US national of Vietnamese origin was arrested Tuesday at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City for attempting to transport 1.1 kilograms of heroin from Vietnam to Australia.

Official figures show that Vietnam now has over 172,000 drug addicts, up 8.5 percent since 2011.

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